Bishop’s Sermon

This is the Sermon from the Licencing of Lorna Johnson Service
Luke 17: 11 – 19
Our Response to God by the Rt Revd Karen Gorham, Bishop of Sherborne
One afternoon a shopper at the local precinct felt the need for a coffee break. She bought herself a little packet of biscuits and put them in her shopping bag. She then got in line for coffee, found a place to sit at one of the crowded tables, and taking the lid off her coffee and opening a magazine she began to sip her coffee and read. Across the table from her a man sat reading a newspaper. After a minute or two she reached out and took a biscuit. As she did, the man seated across the table reached out and took one too. This put her off, but she did not say anything. A few moments later she took another biscuit. Once again, the man did so too.

Now she was getting a bit upset but still, she did not say anything. After a couple of sips of coffee, she once again took another biscuit. So did the man. She was really upset by this – especially since now only one biscuit was left. Apparently, the man also realised that only one biscuit was left. Before she could say anything, he took it, broke it in half, offered half to her and proceeded to eat the other half himself. Then he smiled at her and putting his paper under his arm, rose and walked off. Was she cross! Her coffee break ruined, already thinking ahead of how she would tell this offence to her family, she folded her magazine, opened her shopping bag, and there discovered her own unopened bag of biscuits!

I like that story – it makes me think about how well God treats me even when I am not treating him well or thinking that kindly about him. It also makes me think about how, sometimes, I do not really appreciate what I have, or act like I know where it has come from. Not so long-ago famous people all over the world were polled by a magazine which asked them the question – ‘If you were granted one wish that will come true right now – what would that be?’ There were some interesting responses – but one response impressed the magazine’s editors so much that they commented on it. The response was this ‘I wish that I could be given an even greater ability to appreciate all that I already have.’ It’s an interesting answer, an interesting thing to wish for. What do you think would happen if each one of us suddenly became a more thankful person? If all of us suddenly became a more appreciative person?

How appropriate then is it that a day when we celebrate Lorna’s Ministry, at a time when you have been focussing on a new vision for the team here, our gospel for today focusses on thankfulness. The beautifully fashioned story of the leper who returned to give thanks has an irresistible appeal. We like gracious people who know how to acknowledge gifts given to them and who find appropriate ways to express gratitude. Yet the text is so much more than an illustration of the importance of writing thank-you letters. The story is richer, more multifaceted than that, let’s enter into the story.

We had taken the old border road that ran between Samaria and Galilee, and it was a hot day. It was the kind of day when the dust of the road lies thick and puffs up around your feet with every step. The kind of day when the sweat runs down into your eyes. For a while, the only sound any of us hear was the buzz of insects as we walked, but then through the still of the day, closer and closer, we heard them ‘Unclean…unclean.’ Finally, we rounded the crest of the hill and then saw them. They were standing off the road a bit, and as we walked towards them the cry ‘unclean, unclean’ stopped. There were ten of them, and even if we had not heard their cry, we would have had no problem knowing what they were. They were lepers and at the sight of them standing just off the path staring at us we stopped. None of us wanted to get any closer, these were the outcasts, those deemed forever unclean by the priests, forever unable to have human contact. Imagine it – waiting – hoping –trying to hope for that one in a million chance, for that was all these people had.

We stopped and wondered what Jesus would do, because Jesus, in defiance of all common sense, did not seem afraid of lepers. We had seen him touch one, and I figured that these ten must have heard about that man’s healing. ‘Jesus, master, have pity on us.’ Jesus stopped, and holding out his hands he said ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ These lepers must have hoped, they must have believed that Jesus had done something for them, that their one in a million chance had come, because all of them turned and started down the road into the village. We knew then that they had been healed, as we found out just a few minutes later that it was so. With every step towards their own home, they felt stronger, younger, more energetic, till they were completely healed. With every step it must have become more and more apparent that they could be humanly loved once again. We saw one of the lepers again, about fifteen minutes after he and the others had disappeared down the road, he was striding quickly up the hill towards us, singing and laughing and saying over again ‘Alleluia’. He ran to Jesus, threw himself down at his feet and thanked him over and over again. ‘Where are the other nine?’ asked Jesus. ‘Rise and go, your faith has made you well.’  All ten had been cured of leprosy, but it seemed to me that this one man, who had come back to give thanks, had something even more special happen to him. He was not only cured. He was made whole.

And so, we move rapidly back here to Bridport. What about us? What about our response? The bottom line is that the leper who returned became a model of faith. He is able to see beyond his whole body, to the one who made it whole. How true is that with us? How often we see only what is happening now, in our small sphere world view – like the lady at the beginning who thought the man was eating HER biscuits. We see life as it is day by day, without acknowledging the creator of it all. We see this church as it is, perhaps not easily the God who inspired its creation and continues to inspire. True Christian faith is in the eye of the beholder, beyond the here and now. And we are left with a model of thanksgiving.

Today we can look back at where God has brought us from, and give thanks for those who inspired its creation, we can give thanks for Lorna and all those who minister here, lay and ordained, and we can give thanks for the possibilities that God puts before us. But we are also challenged about our own response, what do we give? Do we give enough? What part is God calling us to play? What do I need to give up for the sake of those who currently do not connect with the church here, or know Christ in their lives? The gospel passage confronts us with more than a push for the common courtesy of saying our thank you’s. It gives us an outsider whose unrestrained and spontaneous appreciation dramatizes the essence of faith. That one turned back – and fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. The Leper had only a short while before he lost everything, and now everything had been restored to him, and by going back to Jesus and falling before him he gave everything back. As our gifts are presented to God in church, we sometimes say the following words: ‘All things come from you O Lord, and of your own do we give you.’

We come with our gifts, to give them back to God. And so, as you consider the new vision that God is calling you to as churches, as you see how the team want to develop ministry out from here, as you pray for Lorna’s ongoing ministry, I would encourage all of you to carefully, and prayerfully consider how you can offer yourself and all you have to God in thanksgiving for how God has blessed you. Thanksgiving has always been an integral part of faith, from the times of the Old Testament when people responded to what God had done by offering sacrifices and were taught to give back to God a portion of the harvest to the New Testament when the disciples were called to come together to share bread and wine in thanksgiving for the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, it has everything to do with what we are here for today.

The Sabbath itself is an act of thanksgiving, one you are keeping by being here today. Seven days a week God gives us, and we return one day as a sign of thankfulness. In fact, everything we do here in church is part of our great thanksgiving. To fall at the feet of Jesus, like the leper, is to worship. We too must allow these proud hearts of ours to fall at the feet of Jesus and worship. To declare our love of God, our need of God and our thanksgiving to God. The medieval mystic, John Ruysbroeck said ‘Those who do not praise God here on earth remain silent in eternity.’ Praise and thanksgiving come from the same word in Hebrew. When we thank God, we are praising God, and when we praise, we are thanking God. ’To ‘hold out one’s hand’ as the priest does during the great thanksgiving that we shall come to in a moment, the Eucharist. In fact, Eucharist means literally ‘thanksgiving’. Our praise and thanksgiving is a sacrifice we make to God. God gives to us all that we are, and to God we return it with thankful hearts.

So let us during this great act of thanksgiving in so many ways, this morning consider our response – will it be to give more freely, perhaps there is something we have been holding back? Are we willing to set aside what others think or do, for the sake of a generous God, and can we come before Christ as the leper did with our everything in thanksgiving. These are challenging parables we are hearing from St Luke’s gospel. ‘Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.’ Let us all turn back to God today. Let us turn to him in true worship and thanksgiving, for all he has done for us and may our faith also bring us wholeness and joy.